GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
A Marvellous Journey
A peedie look at the life and work of GMB
so George could no longer escape the adult world.
At 18 he had to leave Secondary School and take stock of his
future. Gone the eternal
present of his boyhood; an awareness of the future was upon him.
and his contemporaries heard the war news on the wireless or read it in
the Daily Express. The 'impregnable' Maginot Line gave them short-lived
confidence, as they charted the progress of the German army.
In Stromness there was a sense of distance from the war, in spite of the troops stationed there. It wasn't long before they discarded their gas masks. By May 1940, George reports the excitement he and his friends felt, waiting to leave school and join the forces. The Home Guard was formed and they took turns to stand guard throughout the night at the Telephone Exchange behind the Masonic Hall. They didn't doubt victory.
next year, 1941 held another shock for George.
Pulmonary tuberculosis was diagnosed.
At that time there was no cure, and the prognosis must have
seemed terrifying to a young man of 19.
Rest, fresh air and wholesome food plus a series of painful gold
injections in the muscle of the upper arm were prescribed.
This treatment was deemed to have good results in some patients.
George spent six months in the sanatorium at Kirkwall.
In his autobiography he records an odd feeling of gratitude to
the tubercle inhabiting his lungs, in that it prevented his having to
face what he dreaded, the world of getting and spending.
Once he was well enough, he was allowed to leave the sanatorium
and wander the streets of Kirkwall.
He came for the first time to St Magnus Cathedral.
It was an intense experience, the beginning of a lifelong passion
for all that the building represented.
He thought he would like to be buried there, and though no one
will be buried there again, it was in a way prophetic.
no longer knew if he had a future, but he assumed the time he had would
be passed in a kind of limbo with little or no expectation placed on
him. He was discharged,
uncured, knowing the tuberculosis might break out again at any time and
be fatal. He felt little
fear of death, and in retrospect wondered if he had been half in love
with the idea, not unlike Keats, one of his favourite poets at the time.
describes himself as unemployed and unemployable.
Mary, newly widowed, kept him for two years in food, clothes and
cigarettes; smoking at that time was not associated with lung or any
other kind of damage. After that he received the small government allowance paid to
tuberculosis sufferers. At
some point he received National Assistance, spending it on books, beer
and tobacco. Mary did
everything. By his own
admission, George did nothing to help his mother in the house, and
although he thought Stromnessians perceived him to be a layabout or
worse, he couldn't object to the truth of the label.
George, these few years represent something of the crisis/opportunity
beloved by Chinese philosophers. In
common with many Stromnessians, his mother took in lodgers during the
war; one was influential in
George's life, bringing opportunity in the midst of crisis.
Francis Scarfe had already published two books of poems as well
as a critical study of modern poetry.
George describes the two of them sitting in the evenings at the
same table, writing verse, passing the finished work across to each
other for comment.
also introduced him to classical music.
George credits Scarfe and this short shared period with giving
him the strength of spirit to choose to live. It must also have affirmed
his burgeoning writing skill, and perhaps the two are not unrelated.
He began to send poems to a monthly magazine, and the stories,
poems and plays were coming steadily. Their friendship endured; they
corresponded until Scarfe's death in 1988.
discovered the Orkneyinga Saga, and writers like Thomas Mann and Brecht.
The vital ingredients of his future writing were beginning to be
1944, contrary to earlier expectations about employability, George
became Stromness correspondent for the Orkney Herald.
He had a hard task with half the population away in the forces,
and black-out at night keeping people indoors, restricting the social
life of the town. A veto on writing about weather conditions or anything
connected to the thousands of troops milling around, or the comings and
goings of ships, added to his difficulties.
George's solution was to give his imagination free rein about the
town and the townsfolk. Reaction
varied from amusement to outrage. Letters of complaint were sent to the Editor, and worse,
George was confronted in the street.
He realised that writing using his imagination might be his true
calling, rather than journalism.
1947 another change came to Stromness –
electricity. The old
cruisie lamp had, by the 1920's, given way to the paraffin lamp by the
light of which George did his homework, played games or read a comic.
Some of the grander houses, and eventually council houses too,
had gas light and gas rings for cooking.
Gas light was diffused through a mantle, fragile and frequently
collapsing into flakes at a touch. The gas meter was fed by carefully
was present when electricity was switched on for the first time in
Stromness, in his official capacity as Stomness correspondent for the Orkney
Herald. For such a
significant moment, it was a quiet affair in Banks' Cafe in Alfred
Stromness had been 'dry' for some twenty five years, George's generation
didn't get it's first taste of beer until 1948 when a bar re-opened in
the Stromness Hotel with beer at one shilling and twopence. The legality
of it didn't stop the feelings of guilt, or the desire to sidle
furtively and without observation up the lane.
Closing time was 4 p.m. Coming
out was in marked contrast to entering; the bravado of ale upon them,
they sauntered out heads held high.
the wet canteens of the soldiers during the war helped to bring about
this change, perhaps the period after the war was ripe for social
change. George took to what
he called the creamy frothy nectar, the beginning of difficulties he
writes about movingly in his autobiography.
till then, Stromness supplied everything George needed; it provided the
rhythm to his daily life, and the slow steady heart-beat of the
community was in tune with his own. But in the winter of 1950-51, out of boredom, George began to
attend an evening class. The
director of adult education asked him if he would consider applying to
become a student at Newbattle College, Dalkeith.
The Orkney poet Edwin Muir had been appointed warden when it
re-opened after the war. George
could expect a grant of £150.
Back to Life and Work Index
Next Page ~ Life and Work Part 3